« PreviousContinue »
swelling of the Apure having scarcely begun, thousands still remained buried in the sands of the savannahs. The species is precisely that of the Nile. Our travellers learned at Sau Fernando that scarcely a year passes without several persons, particularly women, being drowned by them. The following anecdote is analogous to one which cannot fail to be familiar to most of our readers.
• They related to us the history of a young girl of Uritucu, who by singular intrepidity and presence of mind saved herself from the jaws of a crocodile. When she felt herself seized, she sought the eyes of the animal, and plunged her fingers into them with such violence, that the pain forced the crocodile to let her loose, after having bitten off the lower part of her left arm. The girl, notwithstanding the enormous quantity of blood she lost, happily reached the shore, swimming with the hand she had still left. In those desert countries, where man is ever wrestling with nature, discourse daily turns on the means, that
may be employed to escape from a tiger, a boa or truga venado, or a crocodile; every one prepares himself in some sort for the dangers that await him. I knew, said the young girl of Uritucu coolly, “ that the cayman lets go his hold, if you push your fingers into his eyes.” Long after my return to Europe I learned, that in the interior of Africa the Negroes know and practise the same means. Who does not recollect with a lively interest Isaaco, the guide of the unfortunate Mungo Park, seized twice, near Boulinkombou, by a crocodile, and twice escaping from the jaws of the monster, having succeeded in placing his fingers under water in both his eyes? The African Isaaco, and the young American, owed their safety to the same presence of mind, and the same combination of ideas.'— pp. 423, 424.
Near the Vuelta del Joval a jaguar was seen, surpassing in size all the tigers which M. de Humboldt had ever seen in the collections of Europe. It held, in its paw, a chiguire, which it had just killed, and flocks of the zamuroes were waiting to devour the remains of its repast. They every now and then advanced within a few feet of the jaguar, but drew back on the least movement made by him. Our travellers got into their little boat to observe more closely the manners of these animals; but the jaguar, disturbed by the noise of the oars, retired slowly behind the sauso bushes; the vultures, profiting by his absence, soused upon the chiguire; but the animal, leaping into the midst of them, seized on the carcass and carried off his prey. Large herds of chiguires every where appeared. Its flesh has the smell of musk, but hams are made of it which the monks do not scruple to eat during Lent, placing it, in their zoological classification, with the armadillo, and the manatee, near the tortoises, and these next to the fish family.
At this place the travellers passed the night, as usual, in the open air, though in a plantation, the proprietor of which employed himself in hunting tigers. Nearly naked, and with a complexion
as brown as a Zambo, Signior Don Ignacio (for so he was styled) considered himself as a white. His wife and daughter, as naked as himself, were called Donna Isabella and Donna Manuela. This man, proud of his nobility and the colour of his skin, had not taken the trouble to construct himself even a hut of palm leaves, but swung his hammock between two trees. The night was stormy; and Donna Isabella's cat, which had taken up its lodging in a tamarind tree, fell into the hammock of one of the travellers, who, conceiving himself attacked by some wild beast, raised a terrible outcry which not a little discomposed the rest of the party. It rained in torrents all night, and their host congratulated the drenched and shivering travellers next morning on their good fortune in not sleeping on the strand, but entre gente blanca y de trato, among whites and persons of rank! Don Ignacio piqued himself on his valour against the Indians, and the services which he had rendered to God and the king, in carrying away children from their parents to distribute them in the missions.
is. How singular a spectacle,' says M.de Humboldt, ' to find in that vast solitude a man who believes himself of European race, and knows no other shelter than the shade of a tree, with all the vain pretensions, all the hereditary prejudices, all the errors of long civilization !
Proceeding down the river which glided through vast forests, our travellers slept the following night on the margin by suspending their hammocks between two oars stuck in the ground. Towards midnight a terrific noise commenced in the neighbouring forest, sufficient to appal the stoutest heart; it proceeded from the wild beasts, who, according to the report of the native Indians,' were keeping the feast of the full moon.' Amidst all this clamour, M. de Humboldt says, the Indiavs could discriminate the soft cries of the sapajous, the moans of the alouates, the howlings of the tiger, the couguar, or American lion, the pecari, and the sloth, and the voices of the curassoa, the parraka, and other gallinaceous birds.
Here they caught a fish known by the name of caribe, or caribito, from its delight in blood : it is the dread of the Indians, several of whom shewed the scars of deep wounds in the calf of the leg and thigh made by this little animal. They live at the bottom of rivers; but if a few drops of blood be shed in the water, they arrive by thousands at the surface. As no one ventures to bathe where the caribe is found, it becomes as great a scourge in the water as the mosquito is in the air. M. de Humboldt however had nearly encountered a more potent and dangerous enemy than the caribe it was a huge jaguar, lying under the thick foliage of a ceiba, which he had approached inadvertently within eighty steps. There are accidents in life, against which we might seek in vain to
fortify our reason. I was extremely frightened, yet sufficiently master of myself, and of my motions, to enable me to follow the advice which the Indians had so often given us, how to act in such cases. I con tinued to walk on without running; avoided moving my arms; and thought I observed that the jaguar's attention was fised on a herd of capybaras, which were crossing the river. I then began to return, making a large circuit toward the edge of the water. As the distance increased, I thought I might accelerate my pace. How often was I tempted to look back, in order to assure myself that I was not pursued! Happily I yielded very tardily to this desire. The jaguar had remained motionless. These enormous cats with spotted robes are so well fed in countries abounding in capybaras, pecaris, and deer, that they rarely attack men. I arrived at the boat out of breath, and related my adventure to the Indians. They appeared very little moved by it; yet, after having loaded our firelocks, they accompanied us to the ceiba, beneath which the jaguar had lain. He was there no longer, and it would have been imprudent to have pursued him into the forest, where we must have dispersed, or marched in file, amid intertwining lianas.' -pp. 446, 447.
In the evening of the 3d of April, the travellers passed the mouth of the Cano del Manati, thus named on account of the immense quantity of manatees caught there every year. This herbivorous animal of the cetaceous tribe attains the length of ten or twelve feet, and the weight of six or eight hundred pounds. Its flesh is savoury, and resembles pork. When salted and dried in the sun, it will keep a whole year; and as it is cousidered by the monks as a fish, it is much sought for during Lent. The fat is used for preparing food, and for lamps in the churches; the hide, of an inch and a half in thickness, is cut into slips and serves in the Llanos for cordage, and for whips to punish the slaves and the Indians of the missions.
The next day our travellers reached the mouth of the Apure where it unites its waters with those of the Oroonoko. The aspect of the country was now totally changed.
• An immense plain of water stretched before us like a lake, as far as we could see. White-topped waves rose to the height of several feet, from the conflict of the breeze and the current. The air resounded no longer with the piercing cries of the herons, the flamingoes, and the spoonbills, crossing in long files from one shore to the other. Our eyes sought in vain those water fowls, the inventive snares of which vary in each tribe. All nature appears less animated. Scarcely could we discover in the hollows of the waves a few large crocodiles, cutting obliquely, by the help of their long tails, the surface of the agitated waters. The horizon was bounded by a zone of forests, but these forests no where reached so far as the bed of the river. A vast beach constantly parched by the heat of the sun, desert and bare as the shores of the sea, resembled at a distance, from the effect of the mirage, pools
of stagnant water. These sandy shores, far from fixing the limits of the river, rendered them uncertain, by approaching or withdrawing them alternately, according to the variable action of the inflected rays.
• In these scattered features of the landscape, in this character of solitude and of greatness, we recognize the course of the Oroonoko, one of the most majestic rivers of the New World. The water, like the land, displays every where a characteristic and peculiar aspect. The bed of the Oroonoko resembles not the bed of the Meta, the Guaviare, the Rio Negro, or the Amazon. These differences do not depend altogether on the breadth or the velocity of the current: they are connected with a multitude of impressions, which it is easier to perceive upon the spot, than to define with precision. Thus the mere form of the waves, the tint of the waters, the aspect of the sky and the clouds, would lead an experienced navigator to guess, whether he were in the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean, or in the equinoctial part of the Great Ocean.'-p. 457, 458.
The bed of the Oroonoko in its present state of low water was 1906 toises broad, but in the height of the rainy season it is said to attain to 5517. The distant mountains of Encaramada appeared to rise from the water as if they were seen above the horizon of the sea. At the little port, or rather landing-place of this name, our travellers stopped some time to examine the nature of the neighbouring rocks; here too, they fell in with some Caribbees of Parapana.
• A Cacique was going up the Oroonoko in his canoe, to join in the famous fishing of turtles' eggs. His canoe was rounded toward the bottom like a bongo, and followed by a smaller boat called curiara. He was seated beneath a sort of tent, toldo, constructed, as well as the sail, of palm-leaves. His cold and silent gravity, the respect with which he was treated by his attendants, every thing denoted him to be a person of importance. He was equipped, however, in the same manner as his Indians. They were all equally naked, armed with bows and arrows, and covered with onoto, which is the colouring fecula of the bixa orellana. The chief, the domestics, the furniture, the boat, and the sail, were all painted red. These Caribbees are men of an almost athletic stature; they appeared to us much taller than the Indians we had hitherto seen. Their smooth and thick hair, cut upon their forehead like that of choristers, their eyebrows painted black, their look at once gloomy and animated, give their physiognomy a singular hardness of expression. Having till then seen only the skulls of some Caribbees of the West India islands preserved in the collections of Europe, we were surprised to find, that these Indians, who were of pure race, had the forehead much more rounded than it has been described. The women, very tall, but disgusting from their want of cleanliness, carried their infants on their backs, having their thighs and legs bound at certain distances by broad strips of cotton cloth. The flesh, strongly compressed beneath the ligatures, was swelled in the interstices. It is generally to be observed, that the Caribbees are as attentive to their
exterior, and their ornaments, as it is possible for men to be, who are naked and painted red. They attach great importance to certain forms of the body; and a mother would be accused of culpable indifference toward her children, if she did not employ artificial means, to shape the calf of the leg after the fashion of the country. As none of our Indians of Apure understood the Caribbee language, we could obtain no information from the Cacique of Panama respecting the encampments, that are made at this season in several islands of the Oroonoko for collecting turtles' eggs.'—p. 465.
The natives, it seems, have retained a belief that' at the time of the great waters, when their fathers were forced to have recourse to their boats to escape the general inundation, the waves of the sea beat against the rocks of Encaramada;' and this belief prevails among almost all the tribes of the Upper Oroonoko. The Tamanacks say, that in this great deluge, a man and a woman saved themselves on a high mountain, called Tamanacu, situated on the banks of the Asiveru; and casting behind them, over their heads, the fruits of the mauritia palm-tree, they saw the seeds contained in those fruits produce men and women, who repeopled the earth! This is an improvement of the tale so beautifully told by Ovid: but whence, it may be asked, did the Tamanacks obtain a fable so analogous to that which the ancients have embellished with all the charms of imagination? This we shall not attempt to determine, M. de Humboldt contents himself with remarking that similar traditions exist among all the nations of the earth, and, like the relics of a vast shipwreck, are highly interesting in the philosophical study of our own species.' The following is something more than tradition.
"A few leagues from Encaramada, a rock, called Tepu-mereme, or “ the painted rock,” rises in the midst of the savannah. It displays resemblances of animals, and symbolic figures, resembling those we saw in going down the Oroonoko, at a small distance below Encaramada, near the town Caycara. Similar rocks in Africa are called by travellers Fetish Stones, I shall not make use of this term, because fetishism does not prevail among the natives of the Oroonoko; and the figures of stars, of the sun, of tigers, and of crocodiles, which we found traced upon the rocks in spots now uninhabited, appeared to me in no way to denote the objects of worship of those nations. Between the banks of the Cassiquiare and the Oroonoko; between Encaramada, the Capuchino, and Caycara, these hieroglyphic figures are often placed at great heights on the walls of rock, that could be accessible only by constructing very lofly scaffolds. When the natives are asked how those figures could have been sculptured, they answer with a smile, as relating a fact of which a stranger, a white man only, could be ignorant, that “at the period of the great waters, their fathers went to that height in boats.”—pp: 472, 473.